The Stone Verdict

Heaney indicated that he had strongly considered The Stone Verdict as a title for the collection (DOD290).

Elegising his father Patrick Heaney, the poet imagines an alternative memorial to the headstone which stands in Bellaghy churchyard. In a collection that bristles with classical references he turns to a classical source and builds a burial monument that elevates his father to divine status.

Heaney places the ‘shadow’ of Patrick Heaney in the judgment place,  not in ‘particular judgment’ before God post mortem but before a ‘jury’ of his mid-Ulster peers, instantly recognisable to those who lived or worked with him with his iconic ash-plant (stick in his hand) and head-gear (broad hat) – the same acutely sensitive Patrick Heaney (maimed by self-doubt) who suffered no fool gladly (old disdain of sweet talk and excuses) – a man for whom a summary throw-away verdict would be totally inadequate (no justice if the sentence is blabbed out).

Accepting the gravitas of the moment (ultimate court) Patrick would expect something more than words given his taciturn manner (a lifetime’s speechlessness).

Heaney summons (let it be) a very apt classical precedent – the judgment of Hermes, now identified with cairns (God of the stone heap). On trial for killing Hera’s dog, Hermes waited for the gods to judge him innocent by laying their voting-pebbles (the stones were verdicts) at his feet (solidly … piling up around him) binding his proxy Patrick Heaney (waist deep) into the rough stone memorial that elevates him beyond mortal status (his apotheosis).

One of these days, Heaney predicts, on some mid Ulster site reminiscent of Patrick Heaney in life (a gate-pillar or a tumbled wallstead) where Nature shares the solemnity of the moment (hogweed earths the silence) someone will be prompted to a warm recall (‘Here his spirit lingers’) …  such a moment will be all but impossible for the poet to bear (will have said too much).

  • judgment place: where the soul of a dead person appears before God
  • maimed: incapacitated, reduced to silence;
  • disdain: contempt;
  • sweet talk: smooth talk, blarney
  • blab out: blurt out, leak;
  • Hermes: son of Zeus and Maia, the messenger of the gods, and god of merchants, thieves, and oratory. He was portrayed as a herald equipped for travelling, with broad-brimmed hat, winged shoes, and a winged rod; responsible for leading the dead to the underworld
  • according to legend Hermes was put on trial by Hera for slaying her favourite servant the monster Argus whom she had appointed to watch the cow into which her priestess Io   had been transformed. All the other gods acted as a jury and were given pebbles to cast at the feet of which of Hera and Hermes they deemed to be in the right
  • verdict: decision made after deliberation;
  • waist: half-way point of human body between rib cage and hips and legs;
  • cairn: (Scottish-Gaelic word) a man-made stack of stones, used for a broad variety of purposes from prehistoric times to the present – landmarks and way-marks but since pre-history often used as burial monuments;
  • apotheosis: elevation from human to divine status;
  • tumble: fall clumsily;
  • hogweed: large weed of parsley family once used as forage for pigs;
  • break: break silence, speak unexpectedly;


  • 15 lines (7+8) in 4 sentences (including the colon; unrhymed;
  • line length 8–13 syllables; rich use of enjambed lines;
  • court and scrutiny settings: Patrick Heaney before his rural mid-Ulster peers; Hermes on trial before the classical gods;
  • assonant effects: [ei] place…maimed…disdain…waste…gate…break…say; [i] with his stick in his hand…still on his head…his spirit lingers…will; [ɔː] broad…talk…more…court; [æ] stands…hand…hat…blabbed; [ai] relied… lifetime…like…piling; [i:] he…sweet……relied…speech…Hermes…heap…feet…deep…be…weed;
  • alliterative chains: front of mouth [h] [l] [w]; reprises of alveolar [t/d], bilabial [p/b], velar [k/g] nasals [m/n], sibilants [s/z/sh] labio-dental [f/v];


  • speaking to DOD, Heaney added an unexpected dimension:…in the eighties, back in the milieu of the Harvard English Department, it was impossible not to be aware of the challenge Derrida (whose so-called ‘deconstruction’ approach to text and meaning was unappreciated by Heaney) was offering. The words in the word-hoard were in danger of being dematerialized and everything in me was protesting silently – which is why, in ‘The Stone Verdict’, my father’s silence is placed in the scales as a kind of counterweight to all speechifying and theory-speak (287);
  • NC The god Hermes figures centrally in ‘The Stone Verdict’ in The Haw Lantern, and in several ways he may be considered the presiding genius of the volume. In Greek mythology Hermes is responsible for leading the dead to the underworld, and he therefore appropriately appears in this poem, an elegy for Heaney’s father … ‘The Stone Verdict’ imagines a last judgement fit for a taciturn man… This association with trial or testing therefore means that Hermes stands over the volume’s several poems of ethical scrutiny or inspection; and the connection with stone means that he inheres in the book’s many uses of it as image, symbol and emblem … the resisting, dangerous obduracy of stone is almost as necessary to The Haw Lantern as the yielding, preservative qualities of bog peat are to North. (135)


  • Heaney is a meticulous craftsman using combinations of vowel and consonant to form a poem that is something to be listened to.
  • the music of the poem: thirteen assonant strands are woven into the text; Heaney places them grouped within specific areas to create internal rhymes , or reprises them at intervals or threads them through the text;
  • syllables without highlight are largely the unstressed sound as in common, little [ə]

  • alliterative effects allow pulses or beats, soothings or hissings or frictions of consonant sound to modify the assonant melodies; this is sonic engineering of the first order;
  • a full breakdown of consonant sounds and where in the mouth they are formed is to be found in the Afterthoughts section;

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